This piece was originally published at Ethika Politika on January 15, 2014.
Newman on the University and Other Institutions in Tension
“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” –Planned Parenthood v. Casey
I’ve argued that the problems facing marriage today do not come primarily from a lack in the understanding of what marriage is. Rather, they come from the particular constitution of contemporary American society, in particular the atomization of American culture. Here I will argue how they also arise from another prominent feature of contemporary American culture: secularization within the context of a pluralistic democracy, and its resulting anti-institutionalization.
Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that “to be instructed in the virtues… is nothing other than to learn to discharge… roles and functions well rather than badly.” Both intellectual and moral virtue will be facilitated and limited by the types of roles we find ourselves in, and the construction of society will largely determine these roles. A lack in understanding can certainly reinforce these problems, but our understanding comes in large part from the question, “What am I to do”, and this question arises from our relationships, including our relationships to social institutions and these institutions’ relationships to other institutions.
The belief that human problems arise primarily from a lack of understanding is a compelling belief. Michael Bradley writes, “Americans are now clamoring for same-sex marriage because they misunderstand what marriage is, and they misunderstand what marriage is because it has been obscured through… misunderstandings of love, commitment, and community.” While Bradley argues that “the revisionist view of marriage is constituted by these crises,” I have suggested that the “revisionist view” of marriage arose as a result ofthese crises.
Those who embrace the former view often hold marriage to be a once culturally stable and socially coherent institution that has come under attack in the last few decades by external views that undermine it. These folks often also presuppose that prior to this intrusion by external views, most of society had a common understanding of marriage, and this shared understanding preserved the integrity of the institution.
One should note, however, that prior to the modern era, most members of Western civilization were uneducated in the modern sense. That is, most of society would not have been able to articulate the theological meaning or philosophical foundations of the marital relationship. Today, “unitive” and “procreative” are words that Catholics quickly encounter in pre-Cana courses; this has not always been the case. Prior to the modern era, marriage in the Western world—as well as most social institutions—was grounded in shared practices that were sustained by established institutions, the Church in particular. Thus, a common understanding did not build a common social practice; rather, a common social practice facilitated a common understanding.
The more I have considered Western civilization’s rich tradition of marriage, the more I have come to believe that this tradition could not be sustained by a secularized pluralistic democracy. If we wish for Western civilization’s complex institution of marriage to flourish while maintaining its fundamental features and foundation, we should understand that removing this institution from its religious framework will be contrary to this enduring flourishing, just as the removal of the University from its Catholic framework is contrary to its enduring flourishing.
In The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman writes that the university is a place of teaching universal knowledge, a place in which the various disciplines are held in a unique tension within a “circle of knowledge.” The disciplines do not have a simple harmony, but a creative tension within this circle. This tension is not easily sustained. Rather, the disciplines, if not under some very powerful separate authority, will seek dominance over one another and cause the circle to lose its balance when one or more disciplines succeed.
For this reason, Newman argues that for a university to maintain its integrity, it must be kept under some separate authority powerful enough to maintain the proper roles of these disciplines, while at the same time granting these disciplines proper autonomy to grow and flourish. Newman names the Church as this authority. One should note that this account of Newman’s work and ideas is an extremely condensed and caricatured account, an account that is inseparable from Newmanian ideas concerning such concepts as papal infallibility. Nonetheless, I believe even this summary exposition offers something to our discussion on marriage.
Like the university, the institution of marriage is an incredibly complex institution, with all kinds of competing roles, interests, duties, and goals: love of spouses, creation of children, care of children, lifetime commitment, societal foundation, religious rite, and so forth. These different aspects of marriage often compete with one another, such that those involved in marriage often feel as though they must compromise one for the sake of another. At a broader societal level, when a government seeks to maintain marriage on its own, the government must choose in which aspects of marriage to ground its understanding of the institution, and which aspects are of greater and lesser importance.
The problem is that governments, especially modern democratic governments, are not stable institutions with enduring identities. They are neither powerful enough nor properly oriented to maintain tensions in a creative way, sustaining the fundamental identity of institutions while at the same time enabling them to grow and develop. Perhaps this is why historically this country has recognized, rather than independently established, such institutions as marriage and universities.
I would argue that our government is incapable of maintaining the integrity of marriage for the same reason that it’s incapable of maintaining the integrity of its universities. The American polity has detached these institutions from the underlying authorities that have the unique power and vision to maintain their integrity. Under this perspective, the spread of a “revisionist view” of marriage (whether the particular “revisionist view” we see today, or some other version) isn’t simply the result of an external aggressor; it’s the inevitable devolution, a decay, resulting from a secularized society.
This should give us cause for concern not only for the institution of marriage, but for all American institutions, including America itself. Without a shared conception of the good and an authority invested in preserving and promoting this conception, American society will continue to be anti-institutional. When personal freedom and individual autonomy are the foundations of the American project, the American people can only but seek to separate institutions from authorities that may promote institutional integrity over the personal desires of those who come into contact with them.
A secularized and pluralistic society can only fail; for such a society isn’t really a society at all. It may contain within itself societies, but maintaining this large-scale project can only be anti-relational and self-destructive. It will fall apart after it has dismantled everything within it.